December 2010 Issue   

Late Night Musings from the Chair


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Scholarship Awards to Conference & Prague
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Pneumatic Theatrical Kits
Fill Need for Low-Budget, High-Impact Special Effects

By Mickey Henry, Norcostco
(this article was originally published in Fluidpower Journal)

From the first tricks during the earliest stage performances to the amazing technological feats of Cirque D’ Soleil, fluid power has been a part of the entertainment industry. When money is of little object, the effects that can be created are amazing. When budgets are small and the artisans who are building the scenery are "willing, but not always able" is where the challenge lies for many in the entertainment industry. Even with small budgets, stage effects using fluid power are possible.

My introduction to fluid power came while working toward my MFA in Technical Direction at the University of Arizona studying under Jon Jensen (CFPAI, CFPPS, CFPECS) at SMC Corporation. This introduction to fluid power was not always in the classroom, but in typical theater fashion by trial-and-error engineering. Within the first weeks of graduate school, my work with pneumatics began. During our production of “Sunday in the Park with George,” we used compact cylinders to open the bodice of a dress via remote control with a shop-built tank and modified R/C (radiocontrolled) car parts to operate the valve. We also used pneumatics to open and close the top of the “Chromalume #7,” a small set piece that had smoke, flashing lights, and neon for effect. I was hooked. Beyond pneumatics, we possessed a small hydraulic system to power a variety of mobile hydraulic farm-use actuators. The system may have been small, but it had the power to open doors, lift platforms, and in one instance power a winch to lift the witch Hecate in our production of Macbeth. (Note: The flying of performers should be left to those who are specifically trained.)

Fast-forward a few years and many shows later. I was working as the technical director for the University of Minnesota. For our production of The Crucible, the designer and director desired to have three small platforms lift from the floor and represent the large furniture necessary Img1in the show (Fig. 1). Typically this would have been cut from the show due to lack of resources. Through much value engineering, I was able to accomplish the desired effect. I pieced together a small hydraulic system that consisted of three hydraulic scissor lifts purchased from Northern Tool (Fig. 2) and a img2Hydramotion PPAC hydraulic pump and tank combo (Fig. 3). I plumbed the lifts, bypassing the original foot pump and going directly into the cylinder. The cylinders were single-acting, so I had to rely on gravity to retract the platforms into the stage. This was all controlled by the control board—literally a piece of plywood screwed into the wooden support structure of the set, serving as a mounting surface for the four control valves (Fig. 4). Three of the valves controlled the individual lifts, and the fourth held the pressure while the platforms were extended. To lift the platform, the pump was turned on and the fourth valve was opened, img4followed by the lift table valve. The fourth valve was then closed to hold pressure, and the pump was turned off to keep the hum of the motor down to a minimum. To retract the platform, the fourth valve was opened, allowing the fluid to return back to tank. This system was very crude, but it worked and was very nearly under budget.

My next challenge was to build a bed for a production of Is there a Doctor in the House. (Fig. 5). This bed needed to be moved around the set multiple times but not use the standard wagon brakes because of the very physical performances of the actors. Jon came to the rescue with a couple of older style 4" bore SMC CQ2 cylinders (Fig. 6). I then filled in the gaps with the newer versions of the cylinders. I created mounting plates to bolt casters onto the cylinders. The cylinders were then bolted into the steel frame of the platform. The cylinders were supplied with air by an 11-gallon air tank that was built into the structure and filled as part of the pre-show duties of the crew (Fig. 7). This large tank was used because of the original intention to have the bed move img8multiple times throughout the show. The large cylinders were used because of the possibility of having several members of the cast on the bed while it was in operation (Fig. 8).

Theater technicians are notorious for borrowing technology from other fields and bending it to our will. When approaching a vendor, we often hear the words “You are going to do what with this?” After my experience creating the lift casters for the bed and other small effects, I began to wonder why pneumatics were not sold in kit form to theater professionals. Once I left academia, I was able to make this a reality. Thus, the Norcostco Theatrical Pneumatic Kits were born. (Fig. 9) As SMC’s entertainment distributor, we are able to offer kits that serve two areas: special effects and lifting/braking. Everything from the connection to the compressor, the actuators, the valves, the tubing, and the fittings is supplied in the kit including the casters for the lift mechanism. All that the user needs to supply is the compressed air. Norcostco will also size and build custom tanks for specific needs.
The use of fluid pimg9ower in the theater does not have to cost a fortune and for the most part it can’t. The resources are just not there. As you can see, some interesting effects can be created for modest sums of money. Unfortunately, these solutions can be clunky and take time to work out the bugs, but in the end they serve the purpose. It is to be hoped that the theatrical world continues to borrow from the industrial world in a safe and effective manner.

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